#SciFiSciPol – Automata Implies The Singularity Can’t Be Programmed Away

As this film has been out for several months, though not in wide release, I’m inclined to say that a spoiler alert is not necessary.  I will speak about the use of robots in the film, which

Last weekend I watched Automata, a 2014 film set in a dystopian future where robots have been built to help society rebuild.  The robots have two rules – 1. A robot cannot harm a human, and 2. A robot cannot repair or upgrade itself.  The plot is put into action when a robot is discovered that was allegedly repairing itself.

From a #SciFiSciPol perspective, there were two items that attracted my attention.  The first was the intention behind the second rule.  If robots were forbidden from repairing or upgrading themselves, they shouldn’t be able to surpass the capabilities of humans.  Put another way, the robots won’t achieve the Singularity described by Ray Kurzweil.  It is an effort to enforce a technical restriction on the ability of a system to improve itself beyond the ability of its masters to control it.  Unfortunately, the film is vague about how the robots were able to work around their programming.  It is quite different about what the robots want to do with their newfound freedom.

The other aspect of the film worth exploring from a policy perspective is how the robots are managed.  Yes, a major corporation is involved, but the control mechanism is through repair and insurance.  Not only are the robots forbidden to repair themselves, so is anyone not affiliated with the company that builds the robots and insures them.  It doesn’t stop unauthorized modifications, but it drives them underground.  This is a different kind of control device, and like the second rule, it is not 100 percent successful in managing the robots.

While the film doesn’t dwell on this lesson, it certainly takes the point of view that simple technological fixes are not going to constrain complex technical systems.  And yes, I consider insurance a technological fix.

As Automata is no longer in theaters, my recommendation to wait for a rental is moot.  It traffics in interesting ideas, but stumbles in execution.  It’s still worth having a look.

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